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City’s power, water committees begin looking at post-storm improvements

Friday, February 19, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

City Council members closely tied to Austin’s energy and water utilities have started mapping out their priorities for determining what led to this week’s massive infrastructure failures and what can be done in the future to prevent hundreds of thousands of residents from losing basic services for days at a time.

Council Member Leslie Pool is working to schedule a special meeting of the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee that she chairs in the coming weeks. The Austin Water Oversight Committee, which Council Member Ann Kitchen chairs, will meet on March 3.

The two have started collaborating to establish how the week of sub-freezing temperatures, snow and ice combined to cut service off to huge portions of the city.

On Thursday the top managers for the energy and water utilities participated in a news briefing and shared updates on work to bring both systems all the way back online. While there has been steady improvement in bringing more power circuits back online in recent days, Austin Water is dealing with an unknown number of frozen mains and pipe breaks hampering efforts to restore normal water pressure.

Kitchen said the breakdowns in service weren’t caused or worsened by either’s failures, with the impact of extreme weather pointing to the need to make facilities and infrastructure more durable.

“The common denominator is the weather. The cold weather has different impacts on power and water but both systems are responding or reacting to that, so in that sense they’re intertwined, but there’s more to it than saying a loss of power caused the difficulties with water,” she said.

“What the water system was dealing with was more from the weather perspective from pipes breaking and affecting pressure. What does it mean to harden the system, and what can you do if you’re a community like ours that traditionally hasn’t gotten this kind of weather? How far should you go in terms of hardening the system?”

Kitchen said her priorities for the water utility include improving public education about its operations and the impacts of weather, looking at improvements to increase reliability in the future, creating an online system to report main breaks and leaks, continuing efforts to improve water supply and conservation, and examining how new automated systems to detect leaks have performed.

Pool said she wants to get the latest update on the current state of Austin Energy once all power is restored, as well as a timeline for the push to close circuits for major industrial customers along with enforcing conservation steps in major downtown commercial buildings. She also wants to examine how the city could create more smaller circuits to add flexibility during outages and start a push to separate the state’s Capitol Complex from the rest of the downtown circuits.

Pool said the state has neglected for decades to take recommended steps to improve the power grid against weather and other disturbances. She added that the city will look to state Rep. Donna Howard and state Sen. Sarah Eckhardt to put pressure on other lawmakers during this year’s session of the Legislature.

With Austin Energy regularly working to improve its lines and delivery infrastructure, Pool said it’s time to revisit a frequent call to bury power lines underground so they won’t be vulnerable to breakage from snow and ice.

“I would love to remove all those lines from the landscape and bury them all … but I was told the cost for that retrofitting is astronomical. That’s not appropriate for cosmetic reasons, but now it’s public safety that will still be expensive,” she said. “It all comes down to dollars, which is why (the Electric Reliability Commission of Texas) didn’t do anything to improve their weatherization and why gas suppliers and power companies didn’t do anything. They see it as costing lots of money and bringing diminished returns.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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